Artist Mike McLeod Demonstrates How to Paint a Buffalo Hide

In Part 2 of our interview with Native American artist Mike McLeod, he shares a few of his tips and techniques for painting a buffalo robe and also tells us about his imagery and the cultural symbolism behind his images.

Note: Our talk with Mike was recorded a few weeks ago and now the buffalo robe is complete. See the finished robe in all its beauty!

[Rose] Today Mike wants to demonstrate for us how to paint on one of his buffaloes. Do you have any recommendations for young artists on how to execute paint onto a buffalo robe?

[Mike] It's the consistency (that's important)…mixing the paint. If its too thick, it doesn't smear right or soak into the hide correctly. If it's too thin, it will bleed out from your drawing.

[Rose] Is it any kind of paint you use or do you use a combination of things - some artists will use acrylic paints and mix them with earth pigments, they'll throw in dye and other things - or do you just stick to one primary?

[Mike] I just use acrylic paint.

(Mike is now referring to his robe and tells us a little about what he's done so far…)

[Mike] I've already taken my pencil and drew an outline of my buffalo.
(Grabbing a thin paint brush and his black paint, he explains more…) I always do my outline first.

[Rose] The (original) drawing is interesting because it shows buffalo running and jumping…it shows a lot of energy.

[Mike] This (painting) is going to be of a buffalo hunt, so I have all of my buffalo running and the panel that I have across the middle…that represents the spiritual line between the hunter and the hunted…and always before a buffalo hunt, there was a ceremony…a buffalo dance or calling in the buffalo…and that's what the skulls in the circle represent.

So, I'll have my buffalo here (referring to the top of the robe) and then running across the bottom part, I'll have my warriors on their horses going after the buffalo…everything's in a circle.

[Rose] The circle is very important in Native American culture…life is a circle, our planet is a circle, you can look up into the heavens and the stars are circles…so everything is a never ending circle for the Plains Indians.

[Mike] Right.

[Rose] (watching him make an effortless painted line) You have a very steady hand. Honest to goodness, I would be everywhere.

[Mike] And, when I'm painting like this, everything that's going to be black, I always do that first - all the outlines, the hooves, the horns, the eyes - I always do the black first. Then, the coloring, I do that last.

[Rose] Do you have to check it periodically to make sure its soaking in or just from all your experience, you just know its soaking in really nice?

[Mike] Yeah, I just know.

[Rose] Probably like painting on canvas…you just know when the paint is sinking in really nice and not beading up or cracking right away.

Do you try to not leave any gaps and cover the area nice and smoothly?

[Mike] These, I like to make them look historical, as authentic as possible…so they weren't perfect (covered completely with areas of paint). Like on my pictographs on my battle robes, I leave a lot of the hide showing through and try to make it look as authentic as I can.

[Rose] Do you think some of that may have been caused from literally painting on the run- you weren't necessarily afforded the luxury of time to just fill in whatever you were working on?

[Mike] That and they types of paints that were used at the time. Most of those were earth paints made from berries and bugs and things like that.

[Rose] I even heard a rumor once that they made blue from burning duck poop.

[Mike] Oh really?

[Rose] Supposedly, the methane in the feces created colors, and duck was a specialty color…have you ever heard that one before?

[Mike] (laughing) No, I hadn't heard that.

[Rose] I was wondering if someone was gooning me. I was hoping you'd say, "No Rose, you weren't being gooned".

[Mike] Now, I'm going to do the robe part of the buffalo. (He grabs his paint and starts pouring it out) This stuff is a little thicker, so I'm going to have to thin it just a little bit - I just use a syringe full of water and add some to the paint and mix it up.

(dipping his brush into the paint) Then, I just outline the area where the robe part is (on his buffalo drawing).

[Rose] (admiring his steady hand and effortless line) See, even that…my line would've been all over the place.

[Mike] Now I need a little thicker brush for filling in (he begins to paint).

[Rose] And, for anyone who doubts out there, this is also a clear demonstration of free-handing. Instead of using a template to paint around or draw around, Mike McLeod is actually free-handing these designs.

[Mike] So, basically, I just move around here and smear the paint around and it becomes what it is.

[Rose] Do you spray any kind of finishing on the hides or do you recommend doing anything like that?

[Mike] What I like to do (its something I learned over the years), that is if you want something to look old, is spray it with raw umber. When the robe is first painted, the colors look bright, so spraying the raw umber over the piece tones the colors down.

(just finishing the robe part of his buffalo painting) There's the front part of the buffalo…that's how the rest of them will look. Once I get them all done, I'll do my riders, and I'll finish middle strip very last because as I'm going along…things are always changing and I'm seeing different things and what this (center strip) wants to be, what colors it wants to be…and then that's how I'll finish it off.

So, that's basically how I start and finish a robe...